Meg Whitman as HP CEO? Why that could be a bad idea


Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, may be one of the names floated to replace Leo Apotheker as HP CEO. If Apotheker is ousted, he’ll be the third forced out within seven years. (Robert Galbraith/REUTERS)

If the news reports turn out to be true, the criticism will be warranted. Apotheker will be the third HP CEO ousted or pressured to resign in less than seven years. Startlingly, one report says much of the board hadn’t even met Apotheker before hiring him. There was the “pretexting” scandal back in 2006, in which HP’s board, albeit with different members, was said to use inappropriate tactics to obtain phone records of reporters. And the perplexing way it handled former CEO Mark Hurd’s departure last year following concerns about a relationship with a female contractor was also questionable. As one corporate governance expert told The Wall Street Journal, HP’s board “seems to attract misery.”

Moreover, they don’t appear to be very focused on grooming insiders. After three outside CEOs have been or appear poised to be shown the door, most of the talk in Wednesday’s news was that board member Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, is reportedly a candidate to take over.

Considering the fate of the three outsiders HP has hired, it’s hard not to wonder why insiders aren’t given more attention. Carly Fiorina, who was brought in from Lucent, famously rubbed HP employees the wrong way with the top-down management structure she introduced and her shift from the company’s vaunted HP Way. After Fiorina was shown the door, an interim CEO was named for a couple of months until her successor could be named. That, of course, ended up being former NCR chief executive Mark Hurd, who won over Wall Street with his knife-sharp cost cuts and operational prowess. But he was less popular with employees, who apparently didn’t think highly of his performance and chafed at his budget cuts, which included trimming base salaries.

After Hurd’s shocking departure, the board put in place CFO Cathie Lesjak on an interim basis. But rather than promoting an internal candidate, it surprised investors by naming Apotheker, who had been pushed out as the CEO of SAP just months earlier. If Hurd was an outsider, Apotheker was even moreso, hailing from Germany and the software industry.

HP is the grandfather of Silicon Valley. It has well-respected executives who have been at the company for years. Its innovative culture and reputation for engineering is the stuff of legend. If this was any old company, three CEOs from the outside in such short succession would be difficult. But at a place so known for its long tradition of valuing egalitarianism, decentralization, and generosity with employees, it’s likely to be traumatic.

In today’s world, shareholders expect the board to have a strong hand in succession planning. Many investors have been pushing boards to adopt resolutions that share some details about their succession plans publicly—and as HP shows, it’s with good reason. Perhaps HP will yet name an insider—some reports say Todd Bradley, who runs HP’s PC business, or David Donatelli, who runs the servers business, could be candidates. If it doesn’t, it will likely say that there was no one qualified to turn around the company at this point. But if that’s the case, whose fault is that?

More from On Leadership:

The stuff of CEO hubris

Bank of America’s Napoleon complex

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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